Police Reform Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Paice: As the Committee will have noticed, my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath and I have added our names to several amendments in the group of amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Lewes. We have also tabled a cluster of amendments, Nos. 102 to 105, which are in our names only. The distinction is best described by saying that amendments Nos. 71 and 72 take a bludgeon to the clause, whereas Nos. 102 to 105 take a scalpel to it. However, the effect, and the concern, is the same. The concern is so strong that, depending on the debate and the Minister's response, I am minded to press amendment No. 102 to a Division.

The group stands together. Amendments Nos. 102 and 103, or, alternatively, Nos. 102 and 104, are necessary to make grammatical sense, and are followed by amendment No. 105. The purpose of the amendments is to retain the police authority's ultimate discretion in setting its three-year strategy. The tripartite arrangement, for which all Committee members have expressed admiration and support throughout proceedings on the Bill, is essential. Like the hon. Member for Lewes, I am concerned that the clause will tilt the balance back towards the Secretary of State. I am slightly puzzled about why the clause is here and not in part 1, which brought together the national policing plan, where it would have fitted much more clearly. However, that is a technical issue.

It seems entirely obvious that it is necessary for authorities to refer to the national plan when drawing

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up their three-year strategies. It also seems sensible that, if it is obvious that a police authority has totally and utterly ignored the plan and gone off in completely the wrong direction, there should be some mechanism for saying, ''Hang on, you'd better have another look at this—do you realise that you are one police force acting totally differently from all the rest?'' I accept that the Secretary of State should then at least have the power to consult those listed in subsection (11), to see whether they agree with him that that particular police authority has gone completely away from the national plan.

The distinction that I want to draw, however, is between the wording about guidance in subsection (6) and that in subsection (10). Subsection (6) says that

    ''it shall be the duty of every police authority and chief officer of police to take account of any guidance under this subsection'',

and I have no difficulties with that wording at all. Where I have a difficulty is with the wording in subsection (10), which states:

    ''If the Secretary of State considers that there are grounds for thinking that''

the plan

    ''may not be consistent with any National Policing Plan''.

That takes the wording a stage further.

We are arguing about the meaning of words, but I think that, to most people, the term ''consistent with'' means almost matching, or having a very close similarity. That is, to me, as the hon. Member for Lewes said in a different way, granting to the Secretary of State the power to ensure that his policing plan is adhered to almost to the letter, through the police authorities' three-year strategies, and that is too much of a tilt towards the Secretary of State. Yes, those authorities should have regard to the policing plan or take it into account. We have given the Committee the option, through amendments Nos. 103 and 104, of having the wording ''taken into account'' or ''had regard to''.

Mr. Stinchcombe: Does the hon. Gentleman believe that, having taken the plan into account, the police authorities should then be able to defy it?

Mr. Paice: I certainly believe that a police authority should have the ultimate decision about its three-year strategy. As I made clear, if it seems to the Secretary of State that the police authority has drawn up a strategy that, to use the hon. Gentleman's word, defies the plan substantially—goes off completely in the wrong direction—it would then be acceptable for him to use his power to consult the people listed in subsection (11) about whether they agree with him that that is the case. Even then, however, I do not believe that the Secretary of State should have the power to overrule the contents of that strategy. The tripartite arrangement is so important that the ultimate decision about the content of the plan must lie with the police authority. It is perfectly reasonable to say that it must take account of or have regard to the plan, but we should not use the phrase ''consistent with'', which, to me, implies a much closer identity.

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The penultimate line of subsection (10) says:

    ''he shall, before informing the police authority of his conclusions on whether or not it is in fact so inconsistent, consult with the persons mentioned in subsection (11).''

There is a much more desirable way of explaining that if an authority clearly defies the national policing plan, the Secretary of State can operate according to the legislation. We are now addressing amendment No. 105, by which we seek to insert the words

    ''did in fact fail to have regard to the relevant National Policing Plan''.

He should not have the powers to make it consistent, but he should have extreme last-resort powers in the eventuality—which I do not envisage—that some police authority and chief constable were complete and utter mavericks and went off in completely the opposite direction to the national plan. In that case, I would be prepared to accept that there should be a fall-back position. I am concerned about the terminology. The word ''consistent'' implies that the Secretary of State could intervene on much more minor aspects of deviation from the plan.

Mr. Stinchcombe: The hon. Gentleman accepts that the police authority should not be able to defy the national plan, so I presume that he accepts that there should be broad compatibility between the various tiers of police planning. What is the difference between compatibility and consistency?

Mr. Paice: The difference is that ''compatibility'' does not appear in the Bill and ''consistency'' appears in our amendment. No one has put forward the word ''compatibility'' so I do not see the relevance of it. We are discussing a grammatical interpretation of individual words. I am concerned, and if there is an alternative form of words to explain the meaning that I am trying to achieve, I will be the first to accept that.

Norman Baker: Is not it the point that the police authority and the chief constable in an individual area should—having had regard to guidance—be able to use local flexibility to get to the end that the Home Secretary wishes, but not necessarily by going along a particular road at a particular speed in the particular vehicle that the Home Secretary wants them to use?

Mr. Paice: That is a perfectly good analogy of what we are trying to achieve. We come back to the interpretation of words. I believe that the word ''consistent'', which is what we take exception to, implies a very close following of the plan in detail. Therefore, the Secretary of State's powers outlined in the later parts of the clause can be brought into play far too early in the proceedings, and he can effectively dictate what is in the strategy. That is what I am trying to avoid. I simply say that the purpose of the amendments is that the police authority should make the final decisions as to what is in their strategy for the reasons proposed by the hon. Member for Lewes, other than absolutely in extremis when there is complete failure to have regard.

Mr. Denham: We have had a useful debate, which will give me the opportunity to clarify what the clause does.

Let me reiterate our support for the tripartite structure. There have been several references to the

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three legs of the tripod in this and other debates. It is worth reminding ourselves that tripods are generally erected in order to support something. In this case, the tripod exists to support effective policing at national and local level throughout England and Wales. The combination of the national policing plan, the local consultation, the local plans and the clauses work to ensure with the partners in the police service—[Interruption.]

The Chairman: Order. Can I ask the hon. Member for Dartford (Dr. Stoate) either to take that device outside, or to switch it off now?

11 am

Mr. Denham: The combination of measures is intended to ensure that we promote the most effective policing at local level, and ensure that the combination of forces working effectively with each other at local level produces the most effective policing at national level. That is what the clauses do.

The hon. Member for Lewes asked for examples and I shall give one on which there will be consensus in the Committee. It is highly likely that the national policing plan to be published in the autumn will yet again emphasise the importance of extending the national intelligence model to all forces in England and Wales during the next year or two. If a police authority decided that it was not prepared to make resources available for implementation of that model and said so in its plan, the Home Secretary would have every right to raise the matter. The process is that the Home Secretary would do so after consultation with ACPO and the police authority. There would be a bringing together of the circle because those police service partners were involved in drawing up the national plan and advising the Home Secretary. That is an example of when it would be right for the Home Secretary to say that a police authority's action was simply not consistent with the national policing plan. I suspect that hon. Members would be sympathetic if a force or authority had clearly set itself against measures that had been advocated after Sir David O'Dowd's taskforce reports on the reduction of bureaucracy and red tape in the police service to free up officer time.

The national policing plan will, in addition to best value performance indicator and other indicator targets that we are trying to bring together coherently, give a sense of direction in some of those qualitative areas of work that do not lend themselves easily to numerical targets.

Having explained the role, I turn to the amendments. On consistency with the national plan, there are two arguments. The process involves consultation with police authorities and different elements of the police service. On the policing forum are Victim Support, the Council for Ethnic Minority Voluntary Organisations, the Evangelical Alliance, the NHS Confederation, the Association of Directors of Social Services, the Association of Chief Education Officers, the Local Government Association and a wide range of partners from outside the police service as well as the core police service advisers. We brought those people in to give a sense of direction to policing

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at national level. It would be wrong to say that the Home Secretary should not be able to express a view on what is happening in a specific force.

The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire expressed the argument more subtly. He said not that there should be no response from the Home Secretary but that the choice of wording is between ''have regard to'' and ''consistent with''. Without becoming too bogged down in the interpretation of individual words and phrases, I simply say that to make a judgment on whether a police authority did or did not have regard to something is a much more subjective assessment for the Secretary of State to make than whether the document produced as a result of whatever process is consistent with the national policing plan. In practice, it would be enormously difficult for the Home Secretary to have a clear view on whether the document in front of him had been through a process of having had regard to the national policing plan. It is relatively straightforward to be able to make a judgment about consistency. That is why we prefer the word ''consistency''.

The final point must be emphasised strongly. At that stage the process stops. There is no further stage at which the Home Secretary can draw in the plan and order it to be rewritten. It is important to understand that. The Home Secretary may tell a police authority, after consulting other organisations, as set out in the Bill, that its plan is not consistent with the national policing plan, but that is where we have let the process stop. There is no further power—despite the fears expressed by the hon. Member for Lewes—to rewrite that plan.

That is a balance between a good, sensible, broad sense of direction for national involvement in the police service in England and Wales and the development of plans consistent with that. However, ultimately, the autonomy that is highly prized by the hon. Gentleman and others on the final content of the plan will lie with the police authority, as it does today. I hope that we have the process correct.

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Prepared 27 June 2002